Why Is College So Expensive? The War on Public Universities

With 220,000 students, 10 campuses strung across America’s most populous state, five medical centers, three national science laboratories and groundbreaking academic research, the University of California (U.C.) has long symbolized excellence in public higher education. But all that may be changing as a result of budget cuts, reduced access and tuition hikes plaguing public colleges in California and across the country.

U.C. English professor and author Christopher Newfield believes there is more to the current crisis than the recent economic downturn; rather, he argues in his book, Unmaking the Public University, that conservative elites have long targeted higher education because of its role in creating a more empowered, democratic and multiracial middle class.

His view is that decades of slash-and-burn budgets, culture wars, affirmative action attacks and pressure to run universities like a business are part of a concerted effort. The result is not just a hit on classroom quality but on the upward mobility of an entire cohort of high-achieving students whose ambition was, until now, unlimited by their modest means.

A lecturer in the U.C. system, I recently interviewed Newfield on his book and the prognosis for public universities in America. His answers, which were edited, are below.

This past school year was a tough one at the University of California. We saw budget cutbacks, tuition hikes, employee furloughs, lower admissions rates. How do these recent events fit into your larger view of what is happening to public universities?

This is what I was worried was going to happen: aggressive disinvestment in high-quality public universities that allowed for broad access.

In most countries, a top education goes to the top 1-2 percent. The secret of us and other states -- Michigan and Wisconsin, for example -- was that you could get that kind of quality for 10 percent. You had general access to something really good that would put people in strong position as adults. The way California did it is to open admissions at the community college level with open transfer to the U.C. and Cal State if you achieve a certain GPA. If you really look at it, anyone with a high school diploma can earn a degree from Berkeley, even if you had a C- average in high school.

But last year, 300,000 were students turned away from California public colleges for lack of space. California State closed some campuses early, and the U.C. turned away more students than ever. Some community colleges even shut courses.

Further, quality is going down even as access is going down. What we saw in the headlines this past school year has followed 30-40 years of ideological attacks on collaborative development and on the public sector.

“Public” is such a dirty word these days.

“Public” is a dirty word -- it has been my whole lifetime. After driving around in France this summer, I couldn’t believe how bad roads are in California. Or the train system.

But you note in your book that people used to feel positive about public institutions, in particular after World War II. In California, Governor Pat Brown launched a ‘master plan’ to make public higher education free. That would seem socialist in today’s terms.

A couple things: the leaders of the world had almost blown the world up and they were humbled and chastened. Everybody remembered the depression, unemployment, losing their apartments. These were white working-class people the majority could identify with. After war, some went back to live in camps near orange groves. So governors were motivated by a combination of idealism and fear.

In addition, there was a New Deal Democratic Party that had seen you could win elections by organizing people around those ideals and rally idealism. So it was not a spontaneous mass uprising for a high-quality university system. Instead, it was a combination of local leaders, many Republicans and conservative, combined with people’s experience of having been well served by social development.

That was Gov. Pat Brown. He fused ideals with the political machine. He got organized support for the Master Plan, which called for access to college with no financial restriction. There were three tiers: the U.C. system, the California State system and the community colleges. It was a fee-only system, a free education. You would just pay administrative costs.

What has changed since then, and what happened on campuses as a result?

If you look at Pat Brown’s inaugural addresses, you can see equality as a fundamental value -- decent living for everybody. The racial divide in California has helped destroy that.

In California, Reagan defeated Brown by running against Berkeley. He didn’t run against Brown, who was popular. He ran against hippies and protesters and got elected with a weird hate campaign. The Goldwater right had been working on this for decades. One of the important documents in this effort was written by Lewis Powell, who later was appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court. He was a local Richmond, Virginia grandee, a racial broker during school integration in 50s or 60s. He also wrote a piece in 1971 -- a conservative manifesto calling on American business to keep universities from serving as springboards for dissent. He saw the role of universities in fighting authority. So that was an important thing.

By the time Reagan is elected president, a conservative movement is underway to seize the legislative branch and the judiciary. By the mid-1980s, conservatives have institutional power that had seemed unimaginable after Goldwater’s defeat in 1964.

Then what happened?

By end of 80s, the culture war campaigns begin. The big moment is the Newsweek article on political correctness in 1990 by Jerry Adler. That made people think there was a conspiracy, a bunch of undemocratic people who had taken over campuses and were agitating against regular Americans.

One of the core issues, starting in the early 90s with the aerospace downturn and the loss of jobs, was the scapegoating of public universities. [Then-Governor] Pete Wilson started that and got [current Governor] Schwarzenegger to run for office. The current chair of the U.C. regents was Wilson’s budget director. There’s strong continuity between the conservative Republican establishment in California running from Wilson to Arnold, and this includes key regents. These were business people whose only real social vision was low taxes.

You say in the book that elites on the right began to focus on universities increasingly. What actions did they take?

They attacked every reform in the humanities that racially integrated the curriculum, including attempts to broaden ‘great books’ courses at Stanford in the late 80s. The humanities as a source of knowledge in society was gradually discredited. In the early 90s, attacks began on affirmative action in California and elsewhere.

The other flank of the culture wars is the budget wars and my argument is they are basically the same thing. The goal was to discredit fields that had studied negative aspects of American life. The second goal was to use budget pressures to de-fund disciplines that seemed too critical of the established order. History, literature studies, anthropology, sociology -- anything that isn’t econometric and efficiency oriented, anything too skeptical, all of that stuff should only be tolerated if it can pay its own way.

So it’s ok that Yale has a good French department because students are paying full rate but the public shouldn’t be asked to pay for analysis of French canonical literary text -- in other words, don’t teach critical thinking skills that could be used against the mortgage industry.

Explicit attacks on the very existence of fields like gender studies were made by people like David Horowitz [a right-leaning activist critical of leftist professors]. Less intellectual debates took part in statehouses. There was an unspoken assumption in Sacramento and Madison as budgets got worse and worse. It was easier to say, “This is kind of a luxury,” that is, Elliot, Dickens.

But your book argues that a college education is far from trivial, as public universities have empowered a multiracial middle class. I know this to be true in my own teaching -- many students come from modest immigrant families that sacrificed so their kids can go on to greater earning potential and greater influence in the world, whether they pursue teaching, law, business or whatever.

Public universities have brought poor, working-class, immigrant students of color into a high-quality education and not a crap college education. The U.C. wasn’t a diploma mill. It wasn’t a 2-year college -- they weren’t stopping there. Further, in a segregated society, U.C. students met people of other races for the first time.

Here at the U.C., we have the largest number of Pell Grant students of any university structure in the U.S. People talk about Ann Arbor as a great public university. [It is now widely referred to as “a privately supported public university“]. It has 1/3 the number of low-income students you can find at U.C. Santa Barbara, which is still the most affluent of the U.C. campuses. That’s poor, first-generation, immigrant kids -- Asian Americans especially but not only, also Latinos, who are the designated proletariat in California.

Most graduating seniors can’t get into the U.C. directly from high school – the Master Plan assumed 12.5 percent would be admitted, though that rate is lower now. Isn’t it arguably an elite institution?

It’s good for Californians, in terms of direct self interest, to have public education even if their own kid isn’t going for it. It benefits the state they live in, in terms of medical care, incomes, hiring and better wages. Societies fail when they think too much of a prisoner’s dilemma -- what’s my immediate need. History shows that societies that go down that road lose. In the golden age of the state, everything we take for granted was built by public expenditure -- the ideology of Brown and the Republicans of that period. When the Reagan people came along, they were luxuriating in all the stuff their enemies had built for them. Reagan never dreamed he wouldn’t be able to drive down a road in Santa Monica because of the potholes. We’re still driving roads built by Pat Brown. They haven’t been repaved.

On the issue of university budgets, you argue in your book that funding is misunderstood. The assumption is that humanities are a drain because these disciplines don’t attract federal and private investors, whereas grant money pours into science departments. Is that perception incorrect?

Close to 2/3 of U.C. students are in humanities and social sciences. The state funds U.C. largely on the basis of enrollments. In principle, departments are funded according to teaching workload. In practice, administrators allocate only a piece of this ‘workload’ money to departments.

The question is, where does the rest go? Now look at other side of campus. Science and engineering have fewer enrollments (with some exceptions in bio and psych departments). Lower enrollments mean smaller amounts go to those departments. They get extramural money from federal grants and in some cases private supporters and companies.

But the catch is that no outside money pays the entire cost of research. The indirect costs of the research are not covered by the sponsor. Payments for facilities and administration come up short – by $720 million each year at U.C., out of about $3.5 billion in extramural funding. You have to build buildings, pay mortgages, put in equipment, staff and utilities, and there’s also maintenance.

For every $100,000 it receives in grants, the U.C. Santa Barbara ends up paying $25,000 for infrastructural support. Where is the University getting that $25,000? Generally not from science departments because they are spending it all. Much of it is made up via the workload budgets of departments with high undergraduate enrollments but lower research budgets – largely the humanities, arts and social sciences.

When I first made this argument, people didn’t accept it. People in the sciences have been told they were the bread-winners of the university, that they made the money. They’re working very hard, but they took for granted all this indirect cost money attached to grants.

I’m for well-funded scientific research but we have to be honest about where the money comes from and then we can have a democratic policy discussion.

On the subject of money, I see a new term in discussions about higher education -- “subprime student loan crisis” -- which describes the phenomenon of students taking out massive, unrealistic loans. Why is college so expensive?

Higher tuition is not going into staff salaries and faculty salaries, though some of it pays for the football coach to make $2.8 million a year. College is getting more expensive because students pay for things business doesn’t want to pay for, namely expensive research.

Can you give an example?

A professor could get a grant from a medical equipment manufacturer to develop a heart valve that’s more effective than ones currently in use. A mechanical engineer will be the recipient of a grant and he’ll do research on turbulence in micro hydraulic systems.

One quarter of extramural research money comes from private funding. Most of this research is done with a product in mind.

But non-research universities also charge more and more every year. So how do you explain rising costs in the case of liberal arts colleges, for example?

There’s also administrative complexity that keeps growing and that’s true at non-research schools. For example, there’s compliance with federal and state regulations, fundraising and development, which is very labor-intensive. So those are two elements. This is more advanced in a place like the U.C. where fully ¾ of the workforce is administrative, that is, non professorial employees, such as event planners, correspondence managers, accountants and vendor relations staff.

My personal view is we should get back to the core functions – educational attainment through teaching and the best possible research. Universities are great, they’re about imagination and creativity and getting humans out of the problems they get themselves into. If we’re just managing the infrastructure, we’re not going to get there. You’re pulling deans away from academic planning and having them go to fundraisers every day. What does that do to their academic imaginations?

Back to the issue of subsidized research, do public universities get a cut in the profits that industry earns down the road? Do consumers get any benefit from publicly funded research?

Incredible amounts of public research money went into Xanax, for which people were charged $1.80 a pill. Same with some cancer medications and so on, where treatment costs are thousands per month. Insurance is on the hook for that. Most of that was developed with federal money. But statutes don’t allow for consideration of the public investment. A more immediate example is the stem cell initiative [U.C.-led research into stem cell therapies]. People were trying to get mild language into a bill so that private beneficiaries of public money would be required to consider the public interest in their pricing. The private partners rejected any such language.

Didn’t Stanford famously make a profit from Google?

The university gets a cut. They had a smart grants person who wrote a contract so Stanford took a position in the company. With outside partners, it’s negotiable whether they’ll get money from private research. The real issue here is that these home runs are very rare. Very few patents pay off like Google.

Seems like there are already a lot of public-private partnerships, so why not continue along this path and fully privatize public universities?

Privatization is good for smaller numbers of people. but tuition goes up. It’s that simple.

People don’t seem to realize the U.S. has the first generation that has attained less than its parents. This correlates with the era of privatization, which has been going on for 30 years.

California has lost the entirety of its educational advantage. The U.S. has lost the entirety of its educational advantage over the rest of the world. No one without educational advantage has economic advantage.

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